The Artists, Writers, and Philosophers We Teach

Events and News

« Back to Event List

November 13, 2008

On Darwin and the Joys of Science

Second Floor Common Room, Heyman Center, East Campus (Map/Directions)

George Levine
Senior Scholar
Columbia University


One of Darwin's principal qualities as both scientist and writer was his acute powers of observation.  These powers were honed in particular during what might be called his "apprenticeship" on his voyage of the Beagle, and attending to the quality of his observations as he manifested them in his writing, one can recognize clearly the degree to which Darwin found the natural world to be what Professor Levine called "enchanted."  That is, as against the dominant theory of Max Weber, who saw the power of science to rationalize and intellectualize the world a passage to "disenchantment," Professor Levine argued that Darwin's powers of observation and his skill in registering those observations in often lovely prose have many of the qualities of the best poetry -- imaginative, precise, metaphorical, and emotionally engaged by way of language with his subjects. The world Darwin "explains" is charged with meaning and wonderfully enchanted.

The prose of the The Voyage of the Beagle is a particularly good subject with which to make this argument because it tends to differ from that of Darwin's later books, which constitute always part of "one long argument."  In the Beagle, after all, a travel narrative, Darwin could indulge in description almost for its own sake, but in fact almost every description is part of a particular argument.  As Darwin said about himself, he could not resist "hypotheses," and he could never look at an object in nature without asking questions about it.  Thus, the very acuteness of observation is intensified by Darwin's persistent curiosity (which is often based on spoken and unspoken hypotheses) and by his determination to find answers.  Thus the world turns into a set of "traces"; everything means something beyond what is immediately visible in it; everything speaks its history and its relations with others; everything, that is, has a meaning.

Tracing through examples some of Darwin's Beagle writing, one can see how it leads directly to the vision that underlies the theory of descent by modification through natural selection, and the talk concluded with a discussion of several relevant passages in On the Origin of Species, in which that sense of traces and connectedness emerges with scientific precision and poetic intensity.